INTEGRITY: What Strengthens And Weakens Our Character

By Brett & Kate McKay, AOM

Integrity. It’s a quality every man worth his salt aspires to. It encompasses many of the best and most admirable traits in a man: honesty, uprightness, trustworthiness, fairness, loyalty, and the courage to keep one’s word and one’s promises, regardless of the consequences. The word integrity derives from the Latin for “wholeness” and it denotes a man who has successfully integrated all good virtues – who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. It’s not too difficult to discuss this quality in a general way and offer advice on maintaining one’s integrity of the “just do it” variety. But a quick glance at the never-ending news headlines trumpeting the latest scandal and tale of corruption shows that that’s not always the most effective approach. While the foundation of integrity is having a firm moral code of right and wrong, it can also be enormously helpful, even crucial, to understand the psychological and environmental factors that can tempt us to stray from that code. What’s at the root of our decision to sometimes compromise our principles? What kinds of things lead us to be less honest and what kinds of things help us to be more upright? What are some practical ways we can check our temptations to be immoral or unethical? How can we strengthen not only our own integrity, but the integrity of society as well? In this four-part series on integrity, we will use the research of Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics, and others in order to answer these vital questions.

Why Do We Compromise Our Integrity?

Every day we are faced with little decisions that reflect on our integrity. What’s okay to call a business expense or put on the company charge card? Is it really so bad to stretch the truth a little on your resume in order to land your dream job? Is it wrong to do a little casual flirting when your girlfriend isn’t around? If you’ve missed a lot of class, can you tell your professor a family member died? Is it bad to call in sick to work (or to the social/family function you’re dreading) when you’re hung-over? Is it okay to pirate movies or use ad block when surfing the web? For a long time it was thought that people made such decisions by employing a rational cost/benefit analysis. When tempted to engage in an unethical behavior, they would weigh the chances of getting caught and the resulting punishment against the possible reward, and then act accordingly. However, experiments by Dr. Ariely and others have shown that far from being a deliberate, rational choice, dishonesty often results from psychological and environmental factors that people typically aren’t even aware of…….

Ariely explains these two opposing drives:

“On one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people? This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating, and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalization, and it is the basis of what we’ll call the ‘fudge factor theory.’”

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